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What Is The Difference Between Bacteria and Viruses?

Commercial Restoration
Author: ServiceMaster Restore

Bacteria and viruses can both present a health hazard. They’re both pathogens, both referred to as “germs,” and can both cause illness and infection. But they behave very differently. They way that they function and reproduce differs greatly, and they each require different preventative measures and treatments. Knowing which one you’re up against (and how to fight both) is an important part of keeping your facility safe. In the aftermath of a flood or sewage backup, or even during a pandemic like COVID-19, tackling these pathogens is key to protecting your business.

What Are Bacteria?

Bacteria are living organisms made of a single cell. The human body has trillions of bacteria. Bacteria cells actually outnumber your human cells by 10 to 1. Good bacteria help you process nutrients and neutralize toxins, among other things.

But there are many harmful bacteria, as well. Common harmful bacteria around the home include Staphylococcus aureus, which causes staph infections, Escherichia coli, aka E. coli, and Salmonella. Bacteria can cause cuts to become infected. They can also cause infectious diseases like pneumonia, strep throat, and meningitis.

When people are sick due to bacteria, the most common treatment is antibiotic medication. Antibiotics can be powerful, but it’s important to take them as directed. Ending a course of antibiotics early can leave surviving bacteria behind, making you sick again and helping develop antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria. It’s important to remember that bacteria can live outside the human body, and can reproduce quickly, doubling their number every fifteen minutes.

On surfaces, bacteria can be fought with several different cleaning substances:

  • Cleaning agents like soap and water or multipurpose cleaners can remove bacteria from surfaces (though they don’t kill them)
  • Antibacterial agents target bacteria or keep them from growing and reproducing

What Are Viruses?

Unlike bacteria, viruses aren’t living creatures. They’re just organic particles with some genetic material inside of them. They can’t actually reproduce on their own. Instead, they must infect a living cell. Once they do, they hijack that cell and use it to create more viral particles. Sometimes the host cell makes new viruses as it replicates itself. Sometimes, the virus just replicates so fast that it fills the host cell. The host cell fills with viruses until it bursts, and a swarm of new viral particles moves on to infect new cells in your body.

Viruses can cause a wide range of diseases. Influenza and smallpox are both viral diseases. So are herpes, hepatitis, measles, polio, rabies, SARS, and COVID-19.

While there are many broad antibiotic drugs, antiviral drugs are much less common. There are a few. HIV, certain kinds of hepatitis, and influenza can be treated with antiviral medication. But for many viral infections, there’s nothing to do except treat the symptoms in order to minimize harm and discomfort. It’s up to the immune system of the infected person to survive the infection. People fighting viral infections may be given fluids, or oxygen, or medication to minimize coughing, diarrhea, or whatever other symptoms that they may experience while their body fights the virus.

Outside of the body, it is possible to remove viruses with cleaning and disinfecting techniques. But not everything that kills bacteria also kills viruses. There are many antibacterial cleaners that can eliminate a lot of pathogens from surfaces that won’t protect you from viruses. It’s important to use disinfectants that are registered with the EPA to kill viruses, and to use them according to the instructions.

Do Viruses and Bacteria Spread the Same Way?

Bacteria and viruses can both spread in many ways.

  • Contact transmission occurs when someone picks up germs from an infected surface. Touching your nose, mouth, or eyes after contact with germs on a surface can make you sick. You can also transfer germs from person to person through touch.
  • Sprays or splashes can also transmit infections. Droplets of water caused by coughing or sneezing can carry germs at distances of about 6 feet. If this fluid comes into contact with a person’s eyes, nose, or mouth, it can cause infection
  • Inhalation occurs when someone breaths small particles of germs that are carried by air currents. These tiny particles are called aerosols, and they can travel further than droplets can. Aerosols can spread by coughing or sneezing, but they can also be spread simply by talking or breathing.
  • Sharps injuries can cause infection, if a bloodborne pathogen enters a person through the puncture. The risk of bloodborne transmission is why medical facilities have special sharps containers for disposing of used needles.

Different pathogens may spread in different ways. For instance, some germs may be too big to spread by aerosols, but they can still be transmitted by droplets. Other germs survive longer on surfaces and are thus more readily transmitted through contact. The modes of transmission have less to do with whether a pathogen is a bacteria or virus, and more about the properties of the individual type of germ.

It can take time to learn about how pathogens are spread, too. When the Coronavirus that causes COVID-19 first emerged, experts believed that it was transmitted through droplets alone, and not aerosols, and recommended staying 6 feet apart from the person next to you. As time went on, they learned that the virus seemingly can spread through aerosols. This knowledge changes the recommendations and preventative measures that people should take to avoid contracting the disease. It means that masks, previously thought to be unimportant, are very important. It also means that 6 feet between people is probably not enough, considering that the virus can survive in the air for up to 3 hours.

The transmission of pathogens can happen all sorts of ways. That means that it’s important to have a thorough, regular schedule of cleaning and disinfecting.

Where Are Bacteria and Viruses Commonly Found?

Bacteria and viruses generally prefer warm, moist environments, but they can spread through any high-touch area. The amount of time that they can survive in the environment varies greatly from one pathogen to the next.

Bacteria prefer porous surfaces like fabrics and food. That can include clothing, furniture, and stuffed toys. And while they don’t generally stay alive for long—a matter of hours, typically—that’s more than enough time to infect people.

Meanwhile, viruses prefer hard surfaces, and their survival times vary greatly depending on the virus. HIV dies almost instantly outside the body. Some viruses, like certain flus, die after about a day. Cold viruses, as well as Hepatitis B and C, can live up to a week. And the smallpox virus can survive for months or even years.

But even for pathogens that only survive for an hour or two, that’s plenty of time to transmit throughout your facility thanks to a touch screen, a shared keyboard, a front desk, a pen that customers use to fill out forms, or even a doorknob. Break room items like microwaves, refrigerator doors, sink handles, and vending machine buttons are also great places for germs to hang out, and sponges are basically germ hotels—they contain more bacteria than toilet seats.

How Do I Protect My Facility from Bacteria?

Protecting your facility from bacteria involves cleaning and disinfecting regularly. Cleaning involves wiping visible dirt and grime away from surfaces, while disinfecting kills any bacteria remaining. Applying disinfectant to a dirty surface doesn’t help, because once the dirt is wiped away, surviving pathogens may remain underneath the layers of dirt.

Clean the surface thoroughly, and then use a disinfectant to kill the microbes you want to target. Be sure to follow the instructions on the packaging. If you don’t let a disinfectant sit on a surface for the appropriate amount of time, you won’t guarantee the disinfection that you need.

Our 3-step Clean, Disinfect, and Protect system thoroughly disinfects your workplace. The Clean and Disinfect steps help to inactivate viruses like the one that causes COVID-19. The third step, Protect, provides antimicrobial protection against bacteria, mold, and fungi for up to 90 days. This post-disinfection service can help protect against a variety of microorganisms that cause serious illnesses like MRSA, Staph infections, and Meningitis.

How Do I Protect My Facility from Viruses?

Many of the same agents that eliminate bacteria also destroy viruses. EPA-registered disinfectants protect against a wide spectrum of threats, and if you have a specific concern (such as tackling the Coronavirus that causes COVID-19) you can find lists dedicated to those specific threats.

ServiceMaster Restore’s decontamination and disinfection specialists are equipped to help keep your workplace safe from infectious diseases such as COVID-19. It’s important to note that while our antimicrobial protection lasts against most pathogens for 90 days, it does not apply to viruses. Regular cleaning and disinfecting are crucial to the destruction of viral threats.

Stop the Spread of Viruses and Bacteria

Regular cleaning and disinfection are critical to stopping the spread of illness, whether at home or at the workplace. Contacting trained decontamination experts to properly, thoroughly disinfect your business is the safest way to get the job done thoroughly.

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